Crafting a Better Relationship with Time

Productivity, procrastination and the endless pursuit of balance: Concerns of modern life put pressure on time management to the point of personal philosophical collapse.

| March 2013

We say we want to better manage our time, but what do we really mean? Do we mean we seek to tame the daily chaos? Are we afraid of how time seems to fly?  

In Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination and the Endless Pursuit of Balance (RCWMS Press, 2012), author Julia Scatliff O'Grady set out on a journey to discover how we might experience the gift of time on our own terms. She met with many, settling on 10 singular people with a variety of professions and life circumstances. She listened and she questioned and she listened some more. What she heard was not just a clock ticking, but something perhaps even promising, something as prescriptive as it is philosophical. The following is an excerpt from O’Grady’s introduction, examining the origins of her thoughts on the secret to effective use of time. 

Saint Augustine stands under a cloak of stars on the North Africa coast in the fourth century CE. Known for his powers of oration and charisma, he has one gnawing problem: He is flummoxed by his relationship with time. “What is time, God?” he asks as he paces along the shore. “I know what it is if no one asks me what it is; but if I want to explain it to someone who has asked me, I and that I do not know.” As he walks and talks, he continues, “My soul is on fire to solve this very complicated enigma.” Soon, however, Augustine realizes that God cannot help him. He must learn how to relate to time on his own.

Fast-forward to the late twentieth century CE. Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, stands in front of an audience with the following props: two transparent plastic buckets, a bag of green gravel, and a collection of multi-colored rocks, labeled as Important Client, Exercise, Major Project, Relationship, Family, Church, and Community. Next to Covey is a volunteer from the audience, a businesswoman wearing a red suit and pumps. Her hair is pulled back to reveal professional gold knotted earrings. “Do you ever feel like you’re getting bogged down in the thick of thin things?” Covey asks of the woman. As she says yes, Covey picks up the bag of green gravel and nearly fills one of the two plastic buckets with it.

Covey then asks the woman to read aloud the labels written on each rock as she attempts to fit them into the bucket on top of the green gravel. Dutifully, the woman begins the assignment, soon realizing she cannot fit all of the rocks into the bucket. As she moves the gravel, attempting to situate the rocks deeper in the bucket, the camera pans to the audience bursting with the laughter of self-recognition. Covey says to the woman, “You can work out of a different paradigm altogether—you can do anything you want.” She starts all over again, putting the big rocks in the bucket first. In this second effort, she fits both the big rocks and the gravel into the bucket with ease.

In my mind, Covey’s “big rocks” exercise is somewhere on the other side of the spectrum from Augustine’s plea on the beach. Where Augustine struggles to understand what time is—and, implicitly, its meaning for finite creatures—Covey illustrates the dilemma of temporality with buckets, gravel, and big rocks. Time management seminars like the one I describe address people’s frustration with the busyness of modern life. In ersatz worlds of peppermints, notepads, pens, water pitchers, planners, and perky trainers, participants vow to practice greater efficiency in their public and private lives. Inside hotel ballrooms across the United States, trainers project an optimistic certainty that time can be managed through deliberate acts of control.